The Brilliance of Psychonauts Holds Up 18 Years Later
Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.
A good adventure game is almost like a summer camp. It is a place you go to get away from the everyday cycle of your life, with the expectation of getting to meet some new people and undertake fun new activities. In 2005, Double Fine Productions ran with this idea in the form of Psychonauts. The genre-defining game focused on interesting platforming set within new worlds, with the twist that it was also a complex narrative about the mental worlds we all trap ourselves inside of. You could call it mind-blowing, and it still feels that way 18 years later.
The suffix “-naut” relates to an idea of adventure and exploration, traditionally found in sailing (hence the word nautical). This is why we call the people who explore the stars astronauts; it inherently gives something a sense of wonder. The titular Psychonauts of the game are similar adventures, but they explore the interior of the human psyche rather than anything outside our planet. Though these adventures are even stranger than one can imagine.
As a Psychonauts superfan and hopeful, Raz (short for Razputin) runs away to a summer camp run by the Psychonauts. What should be a fun escape turns into serious business when brains get stolen and the Psychonauts determine Raz could be useful.
Three core pillars of Psychonauts make it so enjoyable, and help it hold up under modern inspection. Those are the art, the mental worlds, and the humor. The humor is one of the most obvious elements. Directed by former LucasArts adventure game star Tim Schafer, who also wrote the game alongside Erik Wolpaw, Psychonauts bears the unique brand of humor that permeates all of Schafer’s work. This is an impressive reputation considering how hard humor is to pull off in games. Yet the success of the humor is that it knows how to take a beat and let the rest of the game shine, which makes the often tragic narratives within Psychonauts even more impactful.
The majority of those impactful stories are told within the game’s mental worlds. Physical embodiments of a subject's mental landscape. These also centered around a particular struggle or trauma the subject was dealing with. Gloria’s theater takes the form of a stage show that relives Gloria’s life leading to a failed Broadway career that continues to haunt her. In one of the most memorable levels, Raz has to dive into a man’s head who is besieged by an obsession with a conspiracy about someone he calls the Milkman. His mindscape takes the form of a gravity-defying replica of 1950s suburban America.
Each of the mindscapes succeeds thanks to the unique art style of Psychonauts defined by almost unsettling character design but also heavily stylized mindscapes. Just by looking at Gloria’s Theater or the Milkman Conspiracy level you can fundamentally understand the themes at play. Though the mindscapes also offer the most enjoyable gameplay segments, with each world often involving its own gameplay mechanics on top of the platforming and powers that Raz already has at his disposal. Another mental world, Waterloo Worlds, asks players to use the Telekinesis ability to move figures around a board like in a tactical war game.
All of these disparate parts make up the great some of Psychonauts and reveal its biggest strength. Psychonauts never falters in its plot or character motivations, every single thing is planned to perfection and serves the themes of the story. This is why the wacky art, absurd premises, and unique gameplay of each mental world fit together. In the end, they all perfectly serve the moral the game is trying to communicate to the player about a particular character within Psychonauts.
By the end of Psychonauts, it still feels like summer camp, as you finish your time you realize you learned a lot more than you expected. maybe even grew a bit as a person. Eventually, you will look back on your time at summer camp with fondness. So it goes with Psychonauts, which still feels groundbreaking almost two decades later.